Myanmar’s young tourism entrepreneurs
Since almost five decades of rule by a military junta came to an end in Myanmar (also known as Burma) in 2011, a growing number of tourists are choosing to visit the South East Asian nation.
From ancient cities, to dazzling Buddhist temples, and unspoilt beaches and countryside, it is easy to see the attraction of the country to international visitors.
This year an estimated three million travellers will visit Myanmar, according to the government’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
This is a 50% rise on the two million who entered the country in 2013, and triple the one million who visited in 2012.
After 49 years of international isolation, Myanmar’s tourism sector is having to work hard – and quickly – to meet the wants and needs of all the new overseas visitors.
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It used to take me almost one hour to reply to one email sometimes”
Min Than Htut
Owner, Pro Niti Travel
With the country’s tourism industry still in such a nascent state, it means tremendous opportunities for young Burmese entrepreneurs.
And despite continuing problems in the country – such as sectarian violence between majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims – most young businessmen and women in the tourism sector are very optimistic about the future.
Min Than Htut is keen to explain why he called his tour company Pro Niti Travel.
“Professionalism is something many people in Myanmar have not yet had the chance to develop,” the 24-year-old says.
“So the ‘Pro’ part of the name comes from that. Niti is a Pali [a Buddhist language] word meaning ‘ethics’.”
Min first started to work in the tourism sector when, while studying for a qualification in chemistry, he got a job as a hotel bellboy.
He then went on to become an assistant at a travel agency, before deciding to set up on his own in Yangon (also known as Rangoon) a year ago.
To establish his own travel business Min first had to save up for, and then complete, a government accreditation course, which costs about $200 (£120).
Number of foreign visitors received in 2013
Thailand – 26.5 million
Malaysia – 25.7 million
Hong Kong – 25.6 million
South Korea – 12.1 million
Japan – 10.3 million
Indonesia – 8.8 million
Vietnam – 7.5 million
Myanmar – 2 million
Source: World Tourism Association
He says: “I learned that to work [legitimately] I needed the tourist licence. It takes only two months, but it’s very competitive.”
Min successfully passed the course, and now has four staff, an on-call driver, and a network of tour guides around the country, most of whom are former classmates.
From day one, Min says he realised how crucial it would be for him to use the internet to attract potential customers from around the world.
Yet this is no easy feat when you are based in Myanmar, a country that holds the dubious honour of having one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the world.
In 2012 only 1% of the Burmese population had access to the internet, according to a study by one global think tank.
Until recently, Min did not have his own internet connection, and instead had to go to a local internet cafe.
“It used to be so slow,” he says. “It used to take me almost one hour to reply to one email sometimes!”
Despite the slow speeds, Min persevered and set about familiarising himself with the online landscape. He started by providing advice about Myanmar for free on travel website forums, which eventually led to some of his first clients.
Today, Min is able to go online on his mobile, and Pro Niti Travel has its own website. Despite this, Min says he gets many of his clients via word of mouth, and thanks to positive reviews on travel review sites such as TripAdvisor.
“People forget tourism is mostly a referral market. You need the reference.”
While internet connectivity in Myanmar is set to improve substantially – after major contracts to roll out new mobile phone networks were recently won by Norwegian telecoms firm Tenenor and Qatari-based Ooredoo – other young Burmese entrepreneurs also complain about connection woes.
Ye Man Thu, who manages his family’s mid-range hotel in the ancient city of Bagan, says the internet going down can mean that last-minute bookings don’t come through.
However, the 25-year-old’s main concern is to get local licensing laws relaxed, to allow his bar and restaurant to stay open beyond the current limit of 10pm.
But the idea has ruffled some feathers with locals in a city with more than 2,000 Buddhist temples. “We have a bit of a problem with the beer stations because we are in the archaeological zone surrounded by religion and culture,” he says.
“Police and authorities cannot allow people to drink beer past 10pm. [Yet] for other countries, this is not their culture, they want to relax.
“Also, it would mean a lot of jobs for young people. Business people also welcome that.”
In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, the continuing influx of foreign investment into the country following the removal of sanctions by Western nations, has led to a construction boom and a big rise in property prices.
For 28-year-old Bo, this meant she greatly struggled to find an affordable location in which to open a Thai restaurant.
Bo, who is originally from Mon State in the south of Myanmar, had spent 14 years living in Thailand, before she returned to her homeland in 2013 to set up her restaurant.
She estimates she viewed 100 “overpriced” properties before finding a suitable place, but still found it expensive.
“I had no idea how much it was going to cost me for the rent, I had no idea you had to pay a year up front,” she says. “I thought it would be a deposit then month-by-month.
“I also had to read up on how to make a contract.”
Bo eventually borrowed money from her family for her first rent payment, and eight months on her Green Gallery draws a crowd of expats and tourists, and some locals.
Despite the challenges faced by budding entrepreneurs in Myanmar, Min Than Htut is confident that the country’s tourism sector will enjoy long-term success.
“Too many people think about tourism in the short term,” he says. “People need to think about what will happen in many years. This is the start of a transition.”